Wise Children by Angela Carter

I’m not really sure what to say about this book. I finished it a few days ago and was waiting for some sort of intelligent analysis to appear from the recesses of my brain but sadly I am still lacking in wise insights. All I am able to express is the sheer exuberance, vitality and fun of this novel, which felt very much like being on a rollercoaster. I have read Angela Carter novels before and so I knew I was in for something a little less than ordinary but this really does leap outside of the box and transcend all of your expectations. I loved it!

It is the story of the Chance sisters, or ‘The Lucky Chances’, Dora and Nora; identical illegitimate twins, born in a Brixton boarding house to a parlour maid mother and a scion of the world’s greatest acting dynasty, who would go on to become Sir Melchior Hazard, greatest actor of his time. Told through the eyes of Dora, it is a rip roaring ride through the 20th century, taking in the sleazy dressing rooms of backwater theatres as the girls make their high kicking debuts on the stage as chorus girls, the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, and the squalor of the old boarding house in the early 90’s, packed with memories and memorabilia as the sisters enter their late 70s, still just as glamorous and unconventional as they were in their youth.

It is a cast packed with unconventional and almost unbelievable characters; the twins Sir Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, illegitimate sons of the famous actor Ranulph Hazard and his beautiful actress wife Estella, Dora and Nora, their ‘Grandma’ Chance, who raised them from birth but who is really no relation to them at all; Saskia and Imogen Hazard, daughters of Melchior and his first wife, the beautiful aristocrat Lady Atalanta, and sworn enemies of Dora and Nora, plus a wide cast of lovers, other family members, friends and hangers on who populate the glamorous and eventful lives of the Lucky Chances over their 75 years. The story begins on Dora and Nora’s 75th birthday, also the 100th birthday of Sir Melchior, to whose party they are going, and this triggers Dora’s memories of her life, which the book tells in hilarious and entertaining fashion. Dora’s voice is authentic, bawdy, and filled with joie de vivre; the Chance girls don’t live with regret or sorrow for the past and they packed their lives with as much as they could fit in; lovers, incestuous relationships, Hollywood movies, theatre performances, fur coats, lacy knickers and exotic perfumes. They danced and sung their way through their troubles and it is this sense of life as a performance, as something to be enjoyed and indulged in and not taken too seriously that gives the novel such a refreshingly vivacious feel. It is truly a celebration of life, and as it was written by Carter while she was dying of cancer, I think it is that message of life being a wonderful, exciting gift to be rejoiced in that really shines through the pages.

Of course, being wirtten by Angela Carter, it is a very witty and subversive novel, using plenty of Shakespearean conceits to great effect and to produce fantastic, larger than life characters. There are the infinite succession of twins, some identical and some not, whose identity is fluid, as well as that of their children. Most characters are illegitimate, some knowingly, most unknowingly, and this makes for interesting observations as to the source of our identity and history, and whether a parent is more than just biology. Dora and Nora swap identities and play on their identical faces; twins swap sexual partners and produce children who could be or could not be their own. Incest also features, with the shaky definition of who is whose parent making it difficult to know whether any of it really is incest, and the amount of marriages and sexual partners and random babies belonging to who knows who results in a cast of characters who are dysfunctional, mad, and absolutely hilarious. I felt like I was watching the cast of The Tempest on a high. Favourite characters include Peregrine, the girls’ ‘uncle’, an indestructible, adventurous lothario who lavishes love and attention on Dora and Nora and as far as everyone else knows, is their real father, ‘Grandma’ Chance, the girls’ guardian, who keeps her past shrouded in mystery and likes a tipple, and Lady Atalanta, otherwise known as ‘Wheelchair’, abandoned by Melchior for a Hollywood floozy during the filming of his one and only Hollywood movie, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also starring Dora and Nora, and now resident in the basement of the Brixton boarding house where the Chances have lived all their lives.

This is a wonderful, clever, funny and life affirming novel that had me rejoicing in the possibilities of life and the adventures I could go on. I can’t recommend this enough and I can’t wait to read more Carter. Thanks to Claire at Paperback Reader for encouraging me to finally get around to reading this by hosting an Angela Carter Month!

25 comments

  1. A wonderfully enthusiastic and exuberant review, Rachel. I am delighted that you enjoyed this; Wise Children is a bawdy, chaotic, incredibly fun novel that is a complete joy to read.

    I had forgotten (until reading a quote from it yesterday) that it is very much a meditation on authorship and the “fathers” of literature, that the illegitimacy of Nora and Dora is an extended metaphor. I am really hoping to fit in a reread of Wise Children this month.

    1. I’m glad you liked the review, Claire! I really did enjoy it – it’s such a happy book that I would be surprised if anyone said they DIDN’T like it!

      Oh yes, that’s an interesting point – I hadn’t thought of that. Enjoy your reread, and thank you for being the catalyst that made me pick this poor neglected volume off the shelf!

  2. Ooh, this sounds intriguing! Excellent Rachel. So far I’ve stuck to reading the AC VMCs but this one I’ve ignored because it isn’t. I should give it a go as I like the sound of life affirming.

    1. Oh I know -it’s a crazy, crazy world inside its pages but you soon get swept up into it and it makes sense when you’re reading it, honest! Having read some of her earlier stuff I think this would probably be the best place to start.

  3. There are those books that simply tells a story with no deep meaning or moral lesson. I’m currently reading one, actually. I haven’t read any Angela Carter but this one sounds good.

    1. Yes there are – but I think Angela Carter is a woman who infused her novels with layers of meaning that I am probably too dense to understand! Do pick up an Angela Carter when you get a chance – she is well worth a read and different to most novels you find out there these days!

  4. I just started this one last night, and I’m enjoyed it a lot so far! It reminds me a bit of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, but a bit farther forward in time. I’m glad you liked it so much! It’s my first Carter and I’ve been a bit nervous to start it.

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it too Jenny! Interesting comparison – I haven’t read that but I saw the dramatised version on TV and I can see what you mean – a similar atmosphere, definitely. I was nervous when I started reading Carter but unlike most novelists who go down the postmodern/feminist route, she is actually comprehensible and entertaining while being clever so you don’t feel bogged down in intellectual speak when reading her!

  5. This is the book I also read for Angela Carter month, and it was also my first novel by her. I had a really similar to reaction to you in that I loved the zaniness of the story, though when all was said in done, I’m not sure I had anything all that erudite to say on it! I thought the writing was wonderful, however, and it was so fun, so I’m definitely going to read more Carter in the future.

    1. I’m glad you loved it too Steph! I know, it’s such a brilliant read, but you are left with a ‘and what was that all about?!’ feel at the end! A bit frustrating for the English Literature graduate in me!

  6. I just heard something in the car today on the radio about Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (in connection with the new French film retelling the Bluebeard story). I’ve only read The Magic Toyshop before, but this is definitely going on my library list. Sounds like a mad romp!

    1. I think you’d love it, Kate! It’s such good fun. I’ve heard about the film – it sounds interesting. I’m going to be reading The Bloody Chamber collection of stories next – I’m excited!

    1. Hello and welcome! I’m glad you liked it! Isn’t it just? Sometimes I need a kick up the backside to read certain things I’ve been meaning to for ages so this Angela Carter month has been a literary gift to me!

  7. This book sounds like such fun! Thanks for such a wonderful review. I haven’t read any Angela Carter yet but have seen a few great reviews lately so may have to give her a go.

    1. You are welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the review – you must give her a whirl – her books are a bit barmy but they are wonderful at lifting the spirits!

  8. I ahvent read any Angela carter but have been slyly eyeing up my copy of The Bloody Chamber to try and get read in Claires Angela April month… this book soudns marvellous and has pushed the Bloody Chamber that bit further up the TBR!

  9. I’ve only read a very short book of her short stories/folk/fairy tale retellings, Saints and Strangers, which was a wild sort of read (but in a good way). I have several of her other books that I’d like to get to some time (you know how that goes), but this one sounds especially appealing. You write about it in such an intoxicating way that I might have to add it to my wish list.

    1. I think all of her books are what can be classified as ‘wild’ reads! I’m glad you’ve been convinced by the review – it’s just such a fun read that I can’t help but recommend it!

  10. So glad you liked it – I am always banging on about this – it is such an experience isn’t it. I *love* the picture – wherever did you find that?
    Lovely post
    Hannah

    1. Isn’t it just!? Must.read.more.Carter. I found it online after googling ‘1930s chorus girls’ – it’s fantastic isn’t it?! Glad you enjoyed the post, Hannah!

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